The Sciences

Hell

Cosmic VarianceBy Sean CarrollApr 25, 2011 12:29 PM

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Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

A couple of rhetorical questions posed by Ross Douthat, who does us all the favor of reminding us how certain ideas that would otherwise be too ugly and despicable to be shared among polite society become perfectly respectable under the rubric of religion. (Via Steve Mirsky on the twitters.) In this case, the idea is: certain people are just bad, and the appropriate response is to subject them to torment for all time, without hope of reprieve. Now that's the kind of morality I want my society to be based on.

The quote is extremely telling. Note that the first question is never actually answered -- is Gandhi in hell? And there's a good reason it's never answered, because the answer would probably be "yes." Hell is an imaginary place invented by people who think that eternal torture for people they disapprove of would be a good idea. And it's the rare religion that says "we approve of all good people, whether or not they share our religious beliefs." Much more commonly, Hell is brought up to scare people away from deviating from a particular religious path. Here's the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Jesus often speaks of "Gehenna" of "the unquenchable fire" reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire", and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!"

Do you think that, at the end of his life, Gandhi decided to believe in Jesus and converted? The second question is equally telling, because even Douthat can't bring himself to use a non-fictional person as an example of someone who deserves Hell. He's trying to make the point that "we are defined by the decisions we make," and if there is no way to make bad decisions then making good decisions is devalued. Which is a fine point to make, and many atheists would be happy to agree. The difference is that we don't think that people who make bad decisions deserve to be tortured for all of eternity. This enthusiastic stumping for the reality of Hell betrays not only a shriveled sense of human decency and a repulsive interest in pain inflicted on others, but a deplorable lack of imagination. People have a hard time taking eternity seriously. I don't know of any theological descriptions of Hell that involve some version of parole hearings at regular intervals. The usual assumption is that it's an eternal sentence. For all the pious musings about the centrality of human choice, few of Hell's advocates allow for some version of that choice to persist after death. Seventy years or so on Earth, with unclear instructions and bad advice; infinity years in Hell for making the wrong decisions. Hell isn't an essential ingredient in humanity's freedom of agency; it's a horrible of invention by despicable people who can't rise above their own petty bloody-mindedness. The thought of condemning millions of people to an eternity of torment makes Ross Douthat feel good about himself and gives him a chance to indulge in some saucy contrarianism. I tend to take issue with religion on the grounds that it's factually wrong, not morally reprehensible; but if you want evidence for the latter, here you go.

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